Infinite Global’s Tal Donahue caught up with Paul O'Grady, director of South Belgravia for Grosvenor’s London estate, to find out more about his approach to placemaking.
TD: What does placemaking mean to you personally but also to Grosvenor more broadly? It's something that people often disagree about so I'm interested to hear your perspective?
PO: It's true that if you ask ten different people what placemaking means you will probably get ten different answers. Placemaking to us at Grosvenor, and me personally, is really a holistic and customer-oriented approach to managing a place. It's not just the building, it's the use of that building, its appearance, the space between the buildings and the look and feel of that space.
Placemaking is that combined narrative that brings together all those parts to the benefit of the end user of that place. You might argue that really it's good, long-term, purposeful estate management which arguably we at Grosvenor have been doing for over 300 years.
TD: That leads us on to Grosvenor specifically. What is it that you hope people feel about the Grosvenor place brand?
PO: I think it's difficult to talk about a 'Grosvenor place brand'. I'm not sure that there should be a Grosvenor brand. Every place is unique. How do you compare Duke Street in Mayfair to Elizabeth Street in Belgravia, or even Grosvenor Street to Grosvenor Gardens? Each place is rooted in its own history, influenced by and tailored to its own market. I think every place should be unique, but at least from our perspective at Grosvenor, the way we approach management or placemaking is governed by a set of principles which are defined by our vision for our London estate. And that really is to make sure that our estate is working harder for London, that it's appealing to all, that it's open, integrated and well occupied; that it’s an attractive and high-quality place that people want to go to and use.
TD: Grosvenor have recently launched a new campaign on placemaking and its role in restoring public trust in developments. Is this something you've been involved with and can you give us a bit of information about what that is all about?
Our CEO Craig McWilliam has recently launched a campaign to try to restore public trust in the property industry. We realized that in order to achieve what we set out to do, we are really in the hands of others, be it the council, the planners, the residents… but ultimately public opinion and trust in the industry has fallen. So we feel it's our job to open ourselves up and to explain better what our purpose is. We hope that will help restore trust between the public and us as Grosvenor, but also more widely with the property industry. But also it should open us up to a more broad range of views which ultimately will improve us. I think it's fair to say that historically we haven't been good enough at explaining our purpose and we accept the need to change.
TD: That's really interesting because as PR professionals this is the kind of thing we advise companies on all the time and I think what we're talking about here is branding. Branding being how an entity hopes it's perceived where as its reputation is how it's actually perceived.
Let's talk specifically about one of the challenges which you brought up earlier which is the myriad of different stakeholders involved in today's process. How do you go about managing those relationships and how important is good communications in that?
PO: Communications is everything when it comes to placemaking. To ensure the long-term commercial and social success of the places we manage it is our role to bring together the different views of all the people who work in a place, live there, influence it and have an impact on it.
It could be public or private but it's vital that we listen to all of those views, balance them and try to come up with a joint approach; a joint vision that works for everyone but also takes our places in the right direction.
TD: Can you give us an example of something you've been working on recently that has a strong vision for what you want to achieve and how that is cultivated and brought to fruition?
PO: Within the estate there are so many different places and we look after some extremely specialist areas. For example, I look after Pimlico Road which is an international centre for interior design and craftsmanship and we absolutely do not want to change what that street represents. But how you work with the retailers and make sure that place brand evolves in line with the market to always remain relevant to its target market is a really interesting debate and quite a challenge. It's a challenge for us as a landlord but also for the retailers themselves. It becomes very similar to what retailers do on a day to day basis to evolve their businesses to meet the needs of their target customers.
We're creating a brand at Eccleston Yards, which is in South Belgravia close to Victoria Station, and that's where we're working really closely with the occupiers themselves to help create that vision. It is not just down to us and we work with the different tenants be it gyms, restaurants or leisure operators to activate our space. This promotes their own businesses but also promotes Eccleston Yards itself as a place at the same time. It becomes a 'win win' when you work together and collaborate.
TD: Let's talk specifically about retail, an industry facing a number of different challenges currently. Do you think good placemaking such as what you just described at Eccleston Yards is the future or the salvation for retail placemaking?
PO: It definitely has a role to play in increasing good retail pitches. Future of retail studies have shown that traditional shops are no longer enough on their own and customers are increasingly spending on, but also demanding, experience. Retail areas really need to deliver on that. They need to inspire, they need to provide compelling reasons to actually go and spend time there. The shops themselves are unlikely to be able to do that on their own and this is where placemaking comes in. Creating a whole narrative and a holistic approach to that built environment is the way to actually create the destination. It makes people want to spend time and money in those places which builds commercially viable and socially responsible areas.
TD: Do you think there is any future for traditional transaction-based retail developments? Or will they all require either a leisure component or mixed-use with residential and workspaces, to drive footfall and increase the dwell time?
PO: Within retail you have convenience which now has to be 'extremely convenient' but also convenient to the modern consumer. You've also got to consider the experience and it depends on what you're trying to deliver in that development. What we see is that a combination of uses is what's in demand. It creates a more successful development but also, crucially, a more successful and durable place.
TD: When we did our research last year one of the one of the key challenges for placemakers that emerged is the risk of gentrification. How do you go about making sure the developments that you're responsible for embed themselves in the social and cultural fabric of the existing place?
PO: Authenticity is key. You can't just 'helicopter in' a brand that doesn't resonate with your occupiers or with your market. You need to understand who it is you're trying to attract and who it is you already attract. What is it that makes that place today? Trying to create something out of nothing is unlikely to be successful so it's vital to really build on your strengths and what you've got already. It's all about balancing the different views, understanding what you've got, the needs and requirements of those people, and where you want to take the brand in order to ensure its long-term success. It's important to bring all those elements together, working with all parties, to come up with the right solution and brand that works for that place.
TD: How do you actually go about creating and articulating the vision and who takes responsibility for that when there are so many different stakeholders to get everyone moving in the same direction?
PO: It is a challenge to balance all the different views and requirements of those who are naturally interested in that place or brand. Inevitably some will get prioritized and some will feel that others are being prioritised and there may well be reasons for doing that. It comes down to communication and working with those people, talking to them, understanding the different points of view in order to come up with the right solution that is balanced and works for them or that place, but also for the people that you're trying to attract.
TD: There seems to be a predisposition, or a structural requirement, that only really facilitates quite a short-term view on a place. If you take housebuilding as an example there is pressure to deliver a large volume of homes at affordable rates. That quite often means good placemaking is quite often lacking because what matters is the delivery. How important is it to adopt a long-term vision to deliver a successful place?
PO: We at Grosvenor are in an enviable position where we can take a long-term view. We have always taken a long-term view and that is what we do. It allows us to concentrate on placemaking and the benefits that come from that. But all companies are different, some are driven by short-term profit and others are driven by long-term value such as ourselves.
I think what we see in the rise in the importance of placemaking is perhaps a response to customers' demands for better urban spaces and better places. Whereas short-term profit doesn't necessarily mean that you're not concentrating on placemaking, it can mean that those elements are forgotten in order to maximize what is perceived to be a profit gain. We are seeing a realization that considering all those different aspects to the place - a lot more than just the introspective development or the building itself - are important in attracting demand because those people who actually want to go to those places require more from their urban spaces. That's a lot easier for people like Grosvenor because by nature it's what we do. For the short-term developer it potentially presents an issue but a good issue. Ultimately it should improve the built environment in the country at large.
TD: It’s been said that asset managers and landowners will increasingly look and feel more like magazine editors because what they are doing essentially is curating a space and bringing in contributors at different times. If a retailer doesn't work, if a pop-up doesn't work or a leisure experience doesn't work you can change it. You can change it based on what your audience wants to be consuming. Does that chime with you?
PO: It comes down to what I was saying previously about being customer oriented and understanding your target market. You need to provide something that ultimately satisfies that demand. As property professionals we need to understand the market, what it is it wants, where it's going, how it's evolving and then do what we can to offer something so that people use the places we're managing.
TD: What's your favourite place and what do you think its brand says about it?
PO: I think that a good place brand should be greater than the sum of all of its parts. For that reason, King’s Cross has to be a fantastic place brand because there is not one single thing that you can put your finger on that defines what King’s Cross is. Yet in a very small space of time they have managed to create this narrative that means so much collectively to Londoners, visitors and tourists alike across all the different sectors. So, from a brand perspective, I think that is a huge success.
TD: What do you think London as a brand is and what do you think Grosvenor's role as a place curator within that wider place brand is?
PO: London is obviously a world centre for so many different things. Whether culturally or financially it has a massive role to play on the world stage. London really has its challenges on so many different levels. We really feel that we have a part to play in that, in order to respond to some of those challenges and make sure that all the parts of London that we're lucky enough to manage are really doing the best that they can for the city.